It will be a while before I board an international flight again, but it doesn’t look impossible any longer. I’d got into what I call ambush photography in extremely crowded tourist spots where everyone is busy converting history into a backdrop to their glamourised online lives. This lovely moon door in Nanjing’s Ming era Zhan Garden was impossible to photograph without including other tourists. Ambush photography is when you deliberately use others being photographed in your photo. Using a zoom lens from far to take photos of people photographing each other can be ambush photography, but it borders on voyeurism. Instead, I set a rule for myself: the best ambush photos are when the subject(s) of the other photographer’s photo clearly realize that a stranger is also taking their photo at the same time, or the subject of your photo is the photographer, not the people s/he is photographing. That said, the real subject of my ambush photos is usually the setting, when I cannot subtract the people from it. So that’s what I have done with this beautiful door in a pavilion overlooking a pool with weeping willows drooping over it. It is my memory of how this aristocratic garden, once closed to common people, has been repurposed in a republic.
Every Chinese garden has doors: either the mystic moon doors, or the mysteriously locked doors of various pavilions. The Ming era Zhan garden of Nanjing was no exception. This is supposed to have belonged to the first Ming emperor, the Hongwu emperor, who then gave it to his general, Xu Da. This one also had ornate windows in pavilions where you could sit and look out at the garden (featured photo). The pavilion faced a beautiful pool, and the view out of the window did not look that good.
One of my favourite photos of doors I this garden was of this unassuming door at the side of a large pavilion which contained part of the museum of the Taiping revolution. It wasn’t the door itself which fascinated me, the the beautiful courtyard, and the view into the illuminated space of the museum.
This black stained door in a white wall, with brass fittings and a lock was exactly the kind of mysterious door I had noticed elsewhere. What could lie behind it? Historical archives or gardening tools? There is nothing that tells you about the space behind. Quite mysterious.
This looked like a special moon gate to me. Most moon gates are simply round openings in walls. This has a couple of extra notches cut into it. Is that meaningful, or just a decorative touch? I don’t know.
Inside the Zhan garden in Nanjing, I came across a little exhibition of arts and crafts. All I could tell was that it was not in a contemporary style. The labels on the exhibits were written in calligraphic Chinese, which I find very hard to read. If you are able to read the poster in the gallery below, I would be very glad to have your help in learning more about what I saw.
I’m always fascinated by the Chinese imagery of horses. The rest of the world divides horses into two types of symbols: those of speed (think race horses), the other of plodding power (think of a draft horse). The Chinese view of horses is that of nearly untamed power; it is an achievement to tame it. I looked carefully at all the horses on display. Chinese calligraphic art makes it way into the design of plates. I love the acute observation and wonderful execution of the pictures of flowers and birds that you can see.
One of the walks I’d planned in Nanjing included one of the five most famous gardens of Southern China: the Zhan garden. This Ming-era garden was given its present name by the Qing-dynasty Qianlong emperor when he visited the garden, perhaps in the mid-18th century. I’ve been walking through Chinese gardens, puzzling out their aesthetics, and a chance question by a colleague allowed me to reflect on what I’d seen. Sharing a taxi to the airport, he asked “Are they like Japanese gardens?” I thought for a while. Yes, perhaps in their cultural importance they are. But architecturally they are different.
They seem to be laid out in a series of areas connected by passages or moon gates. The most popular area in the Zhan garden is near the western entrance, with a large pool, multiple pavilions, willow trees drooping gracefully into the water (featured photo). This is a wonderfully pretty spot, and a magnet for people taking photos of loved ones, or selfies with them. But linking different scenes is part of the architectural design. So you can walk from here into the southern rockery, with its massive pile of stones and trees. Once you get past that you are in a pool again, surrounded by rocks. This pool held a couple of very sleepy black swans. You could walk across stones into a pavilion, and pass through it into a bamboo grove where a large tribe of sparrows were chirping and flying around. Then somehow there was the sound of falling water, and I walked through a moon gate to see an artistically constructed waterfall in front of me. Trees, flowers, birds, even a cat or two, still and flowing water, a succession of sounds, these seem to make up Chinese gardens. Now that I’ve started paying attention to these gardens, I think I have to keep looking at more.